Brazilian director Bruno Barreto is best known on these shores for the lush romanticism of the Sonia Braga travelogues Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, and in his country for teen fluff like The Boy From Rio. With the Oscar-nominated Four Days in September, he's likely to establish a new reputation for making rich and nuanced political thrillers. Based on a 1960s upheaval in Brazil, the movie captures the knotted tension of Z, the 1969 Costa-Gavras film that's still the standard for the genre. But the world of Four Days feels far less documentarylike than Costa-Gavras', as Barreto also depicts the workaday compromises of romantic idealism and the devil's bargain of state-sanctioned patriotism.
It's late 1969 in Rio de Janeiro in the heady days of flashpoint activism after the ruling military dictatorship has suspended press freedom and other civil liberties. A group of middle-class kids steeped in moral outrage and trendy revolutionary fervor decides to get the world's attention to its struggle by kidnaping the American ambassador. Moving from an initially touristy "Girl From Ipanema" vision, the film quickly zags to a place where political logic takes over in a climate of fear and sudden loss of privilege.
Writer Fernando (Pedro Cardoso) and a friend join the October 8th Revolutionary Movement, or MI-8, one of many independent revolutionary cadres springing up in Brazil's cities. They undergo intensive training in arms and tactics under the supervision of Comrade Maria (Fernanda Torres), whose hard-bitten exterior belies a romantic strain for which Fernando will ultimately fall.
Eventually, Fernando brainstorms kidnaping the ambassador, and seasoned political operatives arrive to oversee the operation. For four days, culminating on September 7, Brazilian Independence Day, they hold Ambassador Charles Burke Elbrick (Alan Arkin) hostage in a safe house while the Brazilian government decides whether to release 15 of the group's ideological comrades from prison. Meanwhile, Fernando establishes a rapport with the ambassador as the ultimate showdown with the authorities threatens, and an ambivalent cop closes in on the would-be revolutionaries.
The story is loosely adapted from a 1980s first-person account of the caper, O Que e Isso, Companheiro? (What's Up, Comrade?), by journalist Fernando Gabeira, a current member of Congress in Brazil. Gabeira was shot, tortured and imprisoned for taking part in the kidnaping.
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Rather than being a didactic screed or self-serving apologia, the finished film is a clear-eyed study of the small erosions and great compromises attendant to political actions. The kidnapers' admirably intense political convictions are at every turn confounded by the ineptitude and guilelessness of their middle-class folly. The professional terrorists sent to marshal their zeal are repeatedly shown up as bloodless bureaucrats or psychotic thugs. Selfless obedience soon effortlessly strays into feckless opportunism; chain of command quickly engenders petty jealousies and testosterone rivalries. And the enthusiasm of the young is quietly squandered, as bright-eyed idealists continually embrace momentary evils in their pursuit of the greater good. Yet their pursuers are seen as no better or worse--juggling the pressures of work and family and making small talk while trying not to drown their latest torture victim in a drum of water.
In a brilliant turn as the ambassador, Alan Arkin brings a dignity and heartbreaking urgency to the proceedings, even while portraying fear-driven bouts of incontinence or playing his most emotional moment seated on a toilet. Perhaps as a concession to the American audience, most of his scenes are played in English, and their immediacy registers. And as with, say, Danny Aiello in Do the Right Thing, Arkin's unexpected humanism illuminates from within and ups the level of discourse all around.
After Barreto's last film, the grim 1996 English-language farm drama Carried Away, Four Days marks a welcome change of pace for him. In allowing for the moral ambiguity of modern politics, he has managed to reproduce, in varying shades of gray, an old-fashioned political thriller.
Four Days in September
Directed by Bruno Barreto.